Apropos of The Recognitions, Gregory Comnes once claimed that “everything in the novel is plot”. Being an expert who’s written The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis, I advise you to pay heed to him instead of me, but I disagree. If I had to take a guess, I’d say Comnes is probably unconsciously paraphrasing Gravity's Rainbow:
“This is some kind of a plot, right?” Slothrop sucking saliva from velvet pile.
“Everything is some kind of a plot, man,” Bodine laughing. (p. 714)
Nowadays we seldom realize how much Gaddis is beholden to the Borgesian way Pynchon has forced critics to interpret his precursors.
Gaddis, besides heir to 19th-century realism, was also imbedded in early modernists, who found plot to be an unnatural, rhetorical contrivance that stood in the way of a more authentic presentation of life. José Ortega y Gasset summarily rejected it in The Dehumanization of Art (1925). On the other extremity of Europe, with no one to listen to him yet, Viktor Shklovsky defended its centrality in Theory of Prose but in the following year his Third Factory (1926) had this volte-face: “Plot-oriented prose still exists and will continue to exist, but it has been consigned to the attic.” Paradoxical as it may be to say this about a novel whose 900 pages are rife with the usual 19th-century coincidences that propelled plot, I think that Gaddis was likewise dismissive of it. Just because the characters do a lot of things, the things being done are quite repetitive and taking place in the stationary milieu of parties, rather indistinctive parties that drag on for dozens of pages on and are always populated by the same people, as if we were watching concentric circles within circles, halting the narration to a near standstill.
Outside these parties, multiple subplots develop, very slowly, only occupying lots of pages because a few events at a time are amplified by minutia and digression; subplots include: Reverend Gwyon going mad; Otto trying to make it big as a playwright while trying to reconnect with his father, Mr. Pivner; counterfeiter Frank Sinisterra returning to his trade after a stint in prison; Stanley, a Christian just taking his time composing a symphony for his mother and seizing an opportunity to play it in an Italian church, Fenestrula. Plot and subplots develop naturalistically and resolve themselves satisfyingly, and most of it makes sense to me, although I confess even on re-read there are bits that remained unclear to me.
I wouldn’t say everything here is plot; I don’t even think it’s a wonder of the imagination, and comparison with immediate followers like The Sot-Weed Factor, Mumbo Jumbo, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Public Burning, emphasizes Gaddis’ unbudging love for the traditional novel’s down-to-earth baseline. Whereas they were recuperating the neglected art of storytelling, The Recognitions can become difficult because he, like his modernist forebears, didn’t think so much storytellingly as spatially, his models were not myths, fables and fairy-tales, but collage and juxtaposition. Another analogy would be the hologram, from whose fragment the whole can be rebuilt. Or else think of it as two mirrors reflecting each other ad infinitum, but not ad nauseam because Gaddis adds enough variation to stave off boredom. But he intercuts linear development with lateral thickening: we must pay attention to events in succession, yes, but we must also retain the incrementation of patterns, leitmotivs, thematic iterations, parallel structures, and all the foreshadowing burrowed in the language.
Now one reason for proceeding in this manner instead of narratively stems not just from the modernist contempt for telling stories, a low activity left to hacks, but from one of the scientific fields that emboldened it so much: anthropology. It’s no mystery that Gaddis infused his novel with the readings of anthropologists of myths and religions, namely James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. I think we can demonstrate that, instead of relying solely on realism’s causal logic, he structured information after the primitive mind attuned to sympathetic magic. Curiously, it was a casual reading of a Jorge Luis Borges essay, “Narrative Art and Magic”, that made me apprehend the link between the primitive mind and Gaddis’ use of connections, mirroring, analogies, affinities, and metaphorical, poetic ways of rendering the interconnectedness of all things: “The techniques of the novel have not, I believe, been analyzed exhaustively,” Borges opens his essay. “A historical reason for this continued neglect may be the greater antiquity of other genres, but a more fundamental reason is that the novel's many complexities are not easily disentangled from the techniques of plot.” Undaunted, stressing that “the main problem of the novel is causality”, he offers two modes for organizing plot. How to justify the cohesion of elements into a narrative? What’s the rationale behind their stickiness? What glues them? The easiest way, the one we take for granted, didn’t appeal to Borges: “One kind of novel, the ponderous psychological variety, attempts to frame an intricate chain of motives similar to those of real life. This type, however, is not the most common. In the adventure novel, such cumbersome motivation is inappropriate; the same may be said for the short story and for those endless spectacles composed by Hollywood with silvery images of Joan Crawford, and read and reread in cities everywhere. They are governed by a very different order, both lucid and primitive: the primeval clarity of magic.” The second method makes us experience the pre-scientific mind that establishes analogies and affinities between disparate things, the mind that believed in the hermetic principle of “As above, so below”, that what happens on the physical plane is reflected in the spiritual plane and vice versa:
This ancient procedure, or ambition, has been reduced by Frazer to a convenient general law, the law of sympathy, which assumes that "things act on each other at a distance" through a secret sympathy, either because their form is similar (imitative or homeopathic magic) or because of a previous physical contact (contagious magic). An example of the second is Kenelm Digby's ointment, which was applied not to the bandaged wound but to the offending weapon that inflicted it, leaving the wound, free of harsh and barbarous treatments, to heal itself. Of the first kind of magic there are numerous instances. The Indians of Nebraska donned creaking buffalo robes, horns, and manes, and day and night beat out a thunderous dance in order to round up buffalo. Medicine men in central Australia inflict a wound on their forearms to shed blood so that the imitative or consistent sky will shed rain. The Malayans often torment or insult a wax image so that the enemy it resembles will die. Barren women in Sumatra adorn and cuddle a wooden doll in their laps so that their wombs will bear fruit. For the same reasons of semblance, among the ancient Hindus the yellow root of the curcuma plant was used to cure jaundice, and locally in Argentina, a tea made of nettles was used to cure hives. A complete list of these atrocious, or ridiculous, examples is impossible; I think, however, that I have cited enough of them to show that magic is the crown or nightmare of the law of cause and effect, not its contradiction. Miracles are no less strange in this universe than in that of astronomers. It is ruled by all of the laws of nature as well as those of imagination. To the superstitious, there is a necessary link not only between a gunshot and a corpse but between a corpse and a tortured wax image or the prophetic smashing of a mirror or spilled salt or thirteen ominous people around a table.
Narrative in The Recognitions works by things acting on each other at a distance. As a character says, “Perhaps it is not until late in life that we realize that we do not, ever, pay for our own mistakes. We pay for the mistakes of others, and they…” A man kills a woman aboard a ship headed to Spain and 30 years later meets her son. Otto tries to date Esme, who hangs out with Chaby, who’s Frank Sinisterra’s son. Later, due to a mix-up, Otto mistakes a disguised Frank for his father; he takes a bag full of money from him, thinking it’s a paternal gift, but unbeknownst to him the money is fake; he uses it to buy Mr. Pivner a robe, who is then arrested by Secret Service agents who think he’s in on the scheme. It’s so precise in its vortical elegance it can only be art.
In chapter 1, Gwyon, whose clerical title is “reverend”, is mistakenly called “pastor” by the Spanish monks, who don’t know Protestant hierarchy. “Pastor” is a hapax legomenon in The Recognitions, if my .pdf copy is to be trusted. Now, when Wyatt is hiding as Stephan in Spain he falls in love with a woman called Pastora, which is the Spanish female form of “pastor”, shepherd. Mind you, I don’t know what this means, I’m just pointing out a connection, but I trust Gaddis that such symmetry must mean something, it’s too ridiculously perfect to be a fluke outside the orderly realm of art.
According to Borges, a novel should not reflect the “overwhelming disorder of the real world”, instead it “should be a rigorous scheme of attentions, echoes, and affinities.” For him, everything in a novel should aid the whole, everything must be interconnected in the name of harmony, there can be no waste, the novel must operate like “magic, in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy. In the novel, I think that the only possible integrity lies in the latter. Let the former be left to psychological simulations.” His essay was published in a 1932 book called Discusion for Borges there was no doubt by then which modern novel had come closer to such ideal of inner harmony: “But the most perfect illustration of an autonomous orb of omens, confirmations, and monuments is Joyce's preordained Ulysses. One need only examine Stuart Gilbert's study or, in its absence, the vertiginous novel itself.” that Gaddis was writing not for readers but for re-readers, the Active Reader I talked about in Part 1, an entity many foresaw and whose materialization required only catalyzing fiction.
So, contra Comnes, I wouldn’t say that everything is plot, but rather that everything is pregnant with potential meaningfulness. Consider, for instance, the humorous way The Recognitions plays with the Faust legend. Wyatt spots a poodle in the street that follows him into his apartment; moments later Recktall Brown knocks on the door to reclaim it. This alludes to Goethe’s Faust, whose Mephistopheles first shows up disguised as a poodle that follows Faust around town. Brown also utters the self-serving sentence, “You'd think I was wicked as hell, even if what I do for them turns out good. I’m a business man.” This is to me a play on a famous sentence Goethe’s Mephistopheles speaks: “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.” The difference is that Mephistopheles is morally bound to really mean it since Goethe has entrapped him within a moral system that does subjugate evil to good, whereas the higher power his contemporary update serves is profit, and if he has any sense of guilt, which is highly unlikely, he assuages it using the Age of Publicity’s business motto: he’s just providing the customer who is always right with what he wants.Mind you, many of the examples I’m providing here I mostly got them on re-read. The Recognitions is one of those novels that Magny said in Part 1 allow a reader to change from consumer to producer of meaning. Spotting stuff like this is one of the pleasures of reading The Recognitions, which is nearly inexhaustible, there may be hundreds if not thousands of details to pick up on. Consider Stanley’s death. He dies on page 956 crushed by the ceiling when his music hits notes that damage the church’s ancient structure: “He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.” On page 289 Mr. Pivner starts “to doze over the news that the bell tower of Saint Mark's was in danger of falling, cracked in the cool nights of summer after the scorching sun of the days.” There’s double foreshadowing here, because his dozing parallels the real reason Stanley is killed: lack of attention. Here’s him being led by the priest to the organ: “closely attending the words he did not understand, as he seated himself and touched the keys, pulling out one stop and another as he listened, and why the priest shook his head and pushed two of them back as he spoke, Stanley did not understand (and he pulled them back out when the priest was gone, apparently in a hurry to be off somewhere before the next service called him back). —Prego, fare attenzione, non usi troppo i bassi, le note basse. La chiesa è così vecchia che le vibrazioni, capisce, potrebbero essere pericolose. Per favore non bassi… e non strane combinazioni di note, capisce…” He advises him in Italian precisely not to play the bass notes that Stanley immediately plays when he’s left alone: “wringing that chord of the devil's interval from the full length of the thirty-foot bass pipes, he did not stop”.
There’s earlier foreshadowing. As early as page 14 we learn that one Miss Ardythe, an organ church player, “had dropped stone dead at the keyboard with her sharp chin on a high D.” But even before that, on page 9 we’re introduced to Fr. Manomuerta, the organist at the Spanish monastery where Reverend Gwyon resides for a while after Camilla’s death. In Spanish “Mano muerta” literally means “dead hand”, alluding to Stanely dying by his own hands at the organ.
On page 27 we learn that Wyatt was almost baptized Stephen. After he stabs Basil Valentine he flees to Spain. There he meets Sinisterra, who’s hiding under the alias Mr. Yák (which bears a graphic similarity to “Wyatt”). Wyatt inadvertently becomes “Stephan”, with an a, when Sinisterra offers him a fake passport.
Sinisterra tries but fails to form a father/son relationship with Wyatt. In fact, the novel is filled with failed father/son relationships and surrogates: Gwyon/Wyatt; Otto/Mr. Pivner; Mr. Pivner/Eddie; Brown/Wyatt; Valentine/Wyatt. This is another instance of accretion.
Although Wyatt and Sinisterra are counterfeiters in different business, both take their jobs and art seriously and are afflicted by similar contretemps. On page 491 Sinisterra says: “They're not dumb, with a microscope in their hand, the Secret Service, they can find the smallest resemblance, even after thirty years they can see my own hand in there, a little of myself, it's always there, a little always sticks no matter what I do.” This is similar to a passage I regret not having noted down when Wyatt’s criminal associates discuss that he can never keep all of his personal style out of the forged paintings he makes.
On page 237, Brown gets his servant, Fuller, to age crucifixes: “He's working on some crucifixes, Recktall Brown said to both of them. —He's got twenty ivory ones up there, perfect thirteenth century, softened in vinegar to be cut, and hardened up in water. I told him if he wants his prayers to come true all he has to do is rub them with a sweaty hand. I guess a nigger's sweat will yellow them up as good as any.” Mr. Yák also tries to school Wyatt on aging techniques: “Listen . . . are you listening, Stephan? How do you feel, you feel better? Listen, then what you want to do, you go there where it's buried, and wet it down, see? You know what I mean, wet it down? I mean, like . . . like you stand over it and wet it down, see? You do that a lot of times, then you dig it up and hang it in the sun, and it's got that nice yellow aged color that makes it look real old, see? You listening?” When I was writing my novel I read accounts by real forgers about this most essential aspect of art forgery, so I got a kick from revisiting this stuff. I heartily recommend Eric Hebborn’s The Art Forger's Handbook. I’d love to know what sources Gaddis had available between 1947 and 1955.
Sinisterra and Wyatt both take their forger’s art seriously, and in Sinisterra’s case he’s most eloquent about it: “This is one of the only crafts left.” In fact, in a novel characterized by the “…” clogging up each page dozens of times, and in contradistinction to most characters who barely build and finish complete sentences, Sinisterra is unusually articulate. Espousing the same views as Wyatt that mastery over art requires belonging and adding to an existing tradition, he’s sorrowful that being a master he can’t pass his knowledge on to a pupil. Chaby, his drug-addicted son, alas, is a “bum”:
I tried to teach him. I taught him how to spring a Yale lock with a strip of celluloid. I taught him how to open a lock with wet thread and a splinter. I taught him how to look like he has a deformed spine, or a deformed foot. Nobody taught me all that. I learned it myself. It was a lot of work, and he had me right here to teach him, right here, his own father. So what does he learn? Nothing. He's never done a day's work in his life. You think a bum like that I'd claim him for my son? He's like everybody now, they don't study their work, they don't study their materials. Show me somebody who can get that color green so perfect, he went on, looking down at the back of a twenty-dollar bill. —It's not a place for bums to get into, it's a place for artists, for craftsmen. Mr. Sinisterra paused to fit the black hair in place over his own, a thinning texture of early gray. Then he went on in a lower tone, —He has no ambition like his father. I tried to teach him how to make copper plates, zinc plates, glass plates. The only platinum plate I ever made he almost ruined it for me. Just once he tried it alone, he tried to make some Revenue stamps. I helped him right through it, like a old master, cleaning the copper plate with benzine, putting on the wax ground, softening it with a little lavender oil. He made a mess of it. I had to throw the whole thing out before he got us all in trouble. Even the color, do you think he could tell the difference of one green and another? He couldn't tell it from red even. His father's a craftsman, an artist, he's nothing but a bum.
Sinisterra sees himself as part of a tradition with its own history: “Thus he was becomingly proud of his tradition, which he had brought to the land of opportunity to exercise in the early part of the century, when the proportion of Italians to immigrants from less imaginative lands was about five to one: he whose consecration had helped to raise New York to its present reputation for being the greatest modern center of counterfeiting money of every currency in the world.” When giving such hilarious eloquence to Sinisterra, I’m almost certain that Gaddis was writing tongue in cheek thinking of Henry James’ dictum: “A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it.” Since he fails to secure a continuator in Chaby, he next tries to bond with Wyatt in Spain.
Melomania also establishes a parallel between Sinisterra and Stanley. Although it would have been easy for Gaddis to portray Sinisterra as a stereotypically unsophisticated crook, he imbues him with sensibility to be moved by music. Indeed, Sinisterra, Stanley and Wyatt form a trinity of artists who still defend the disinterested appreciation of beauty in a utilitarian world where beauty has been rendered useless. The three are further connected by their serious religious beliefs: Sinisterra and Stanley are Catholics, Wyatt was damaged by Calvinism; for them religion and art intersect: Wyatt is brough up with the Protestant contempt for iconolatry, so he refrains from adding new art to Creation, sticking to copying existing art; Stanley attempts a grandiose musical composition meant to be played in a church organ. The three, in their own way, are trying to make meaningful art in a disenchanted world.
Wyatt’s desacralized double is Otto: notice the graphic echo from one name to another: two vowels attached to a double t. Otto also appropriates, but he’s not working within a tradition, he simply lifts what he hears and slips it into his play; he’s not plagiarizing, he’s just absorbing uncritically what sounds good to make a work full of apparently powerful, clever speeches devoid of clarity and power since they’re so rarefied. The people who read it have a sense of déjà lu, they never call it plagiarism, they just feel it’s familiar. Otto’s travails to have his play beloved by the audience illustrate what it means to want to be original: it starts from a suspicion that originality is autonomous from the artist’s personal vision, that it’s a suprahuman substance that floats in the air waiting to be picked up. Although originality etymologically comes from “beginning”, “birth”, Otto doesn’t look inward or even care to know himself, so his art can’t have particularities born from himself. A person who doesn’t know what he has inside him can’t even begin to formulate something to say since he’s never examined himself to find out whether he has anything to say at all; no wonder then that his play’s readers react at its palaver:
"Gordon: Romantic love, my dear, romantic love. The most difficult challenge to the ideal is its transformation into reality, and few ideals survive. Marriage demands of romantic love that it become a reality, and when an ideal becomes a reality it ceases to be an ideal. Someone has certainly commented on the seedy couple Dante and Beatrice would have made after twenty years of badly cooked meals. As for the Divine Comedy, it's safe to say that the Purgatorio would have been written, though perhaps a rather less poetic version. But Heaven and Hell rejuvenated, I think not, my dear. There is a bit of verse somewhere on this topic concerning Petrarch and his Laura, but I cannot recall it. But even Virginia, you may remember, preferred drowning before the eyes of her lover to marrying him. Paul at least had the pleasure of seeing her drown nude, but she knew what she was doing. A wise girl, Virginia.
"Priscilla: But then, what you're saying is…"
—What the hell is he saying?
—Well, Gordon is saying that love, I mean romantic love . . .
—That's all they do, talk?
—Well, it's a play, and I mean…
“And I mean”, but does he though? Not even the author is sure what this highfalutin patchwork of sophisticated allusions amounts to. His antennas are attuned to what sounds good, ie, will make a best-seller, and as such he’s searching for the taste of others, for popular ideas of what is “good”. Mind you, originality not always meant garish innovation and outlandish invention; when artists worked in tradition they gave it a personal touch without breaking away from it. Once craft was valued higher than authenticity, and so the distinction between original and copy was irrelevant. In Forged: why fakes are the great art of our age, Jonathon Keats enumerates examples in Antiquity of this nonchalance: Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli was “the foremost place to see the masterworks of classical Greece”, but “not a single sculpture was a Greek original.” For Roman collectors “design was paramount, and second to that was the quality of craftsmanship. An especially fine copy might even be boldly signed with the name of the copyist, who was admired in his own right.” The change in evaluation is noticeable in the reactions to Otto’s play: the main problem seems to be its air of familiarity, which would not have bothered the ancients, and not so much its technical quality; at the same time Otto’s a victim of what Valentine calls “curse of cleverness”: “Most people are clever because they don't know how to be honest.” Looking inward may not generate originality in the sense of novelty, but at least it’s honest. But Otto’s also looking out to make it financially, and the market paradigm he lives under impels him to produce “original”, “clever” stuff, whether it’s good or not. Furthermore, he shows a psychic need to be loved and would have hated the anonymity that Wyatt carries as the secret author of forgeries; in his personal relationships he’s not exactly unscrupulous, but he’s cowardly when it comes to opinions; he’ll consider Picasso a good painter only to take it back when a character says “he paints like he spits.” When a character asks him if he’s read The Sound and the Fury, “Of course I’ve read it, Otto said without an instant’s hesitation.”, which hardly sounds sincere. His opinions shift according to their chances of making him loved, unlike Wyatt, who’s not afraid of alienating listeners with his incoherent, hermetic views.
As for an instance of thematic incrementation, the most prominent is the theme of forgery, phoniness, counterfeiting. We’re never allowed to forget how deception has insinuated itself in all of life’s spheres. Sinisterra pretends to be a doctor and accidentally kills Camilla. Wyatt forges a tabletop reproduction of a Bosch painting, believing it to be a real Bosch which his father brought from Europe, lets Gwyon keep it and sells the original to pay for his voyage to Europe; much later he finds it again in Brown’s possession and learns that it was a fake all along. Esther cheats Wyatt with Otto. Otto walks around with his arm in a fake sling, pretending to have been wounded in a revolution in a South American country.
Then we have the use of rumors, which are a modern way of creating myths and run parallel to the way Gwyon shows how Christianity rose from previous myths. Wyatt’s wife, Esther, muses about how he was prone to the on the receiving end of rumors:
She had once heard him mentioned, with little more than curiosity, by people whom neither of them knew now. Then, when she came to asking more pointedly about him, there were anecdotes enough (someone she met at a party had heard he'd jumped off the Eiffel Tower, and with drunken persistence marveled at his survival). In and out dodged the vagrant specter, careering through conversations witness to that disinterested kindness which other people extend to one who does not threaten them with competition on any level they know. Costumed in the regalia of their weary imaginations, he appeared and vanished in a series of images which, compacted, might have formed a remarkable fellow indeed; but in that Diaspora of words which is the providential nature of conversation, the fugitive persisted, like those Jewish Christians who endured among the heathen, here in the figure of a man who, it appeared at last, had done many things to envy and nothing to admire.
Wyatt also starts turning into a character from Otto’s play called Gordon. When Esther introduces them he starts absorbing soundbites from Wyatt. After a conversation he jots down: “Grdn: Orignlty not inventn bt snse of recall, recgntion, pttrns alrdy thr, q. You cannt invnt t shpe of a stone. N. Mke Grdn pntr? sclptr?” More and more bits go into Gordon. Esther tells him about his increase in drinking: “That's all, it took him an hour to work that out. Strange? that he can drink down a pint of brandy, and be just as he was before.” Later we read: “At a stroke, Gordon had recovered his former assurance, and his former height. He had acquired a few new habits (could, for instance, put away a pint of brandy without showing it)”
After Reverend Gwyon is finally institutionalized for insanity, his old abode becomes a place of myth, “where so many curious things had turned up, and would turn up, even, in some digging after the carriage barn was leveled when it threatened to collapse, to a small skeleton, and don't you know the story gained ground, that this was the son? though some thought they remembered him grown older, bigger than this evidence, as time passed and no one ever saw him again, the story remained, with the parsonage to witness, a place with a sense of bereavement about it, though no one has come or gone in a long time.” The skeleton actually belongs to a monkey Gwyon brought from Spain and later sacrificed in a ritual to cure Wyatt from a mysterious fever in his childhood.
There are other instances of inauthenticity in a broad sense, the world suppurates it like a wound. From people selling out to machines pretending to play music, to bestsellers made by committee, to perfectly legitimate newspaper ads like “THE GHOST ARTISTS - We Paint It You Sign It Why Not Give an Exhibition?” Another form of inauthenticity is self-help books, which Mr. Pivner consumes, believes in and abides by: his bible is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, applying its teachings with comical results. The teachings are at their core part of the utilitarian world that degrades everything because they turn relationships into means to something, not meaningful in themselves. They teach its students to see others as automata, things, simple mechanisms too whose complexity can be apprehended thanks to a handful of formulae. The opposite is an advice a character gives: “We have to follow Emerson’s advice to treat people as though they were real, because, perhaps they are…”
Another theme that slowly accretes concerns the devilish player piano. Gaddis held a life-long hatred of the player piano, for him it symbolized the decadence of art: a mechanical device that plays music without human participation, persuading the philistine masses that art, like everything else, is easy and accessible, no skill is necessary anymore. Gaddis inserted this theme in several novels and his last one is precisely about a dying author who’s fighting his diseased body for more time to finish his history of the player piano. In The Recognitions we’re slowly introduced to various instances of this nefarious invention: besides the player piano other instruments are mentioned that play music mechanically: while Wyatt is hiding in Spain he’s always within earshot a barrel organ playing the same notes its lever allows to be played. And I believe the hurdy-gurdy is mentioned once. Then there’s the modern endpoint, the radio, which pervades and perverts everything, drowning beauty with awful pop songs and jingles, cheapening even the meaning of Christmas, which for Stanley remains a meaningful date:
They stopped together at another curb. A store loudspeaker poured out upon them a vacuous tenor straining, —I'm dreaming of a white Christmas… with insipid mourning hope. And Stanley, escaping, abandoning his companions to that lugubrious assault, moved from the curb as though called forth by Cherubini: trumpets and the clash of brass: the horn sounded, and he leaped away from the immense and silent automobile guided by a brittle dame hung like some florid gothic tracery behind the steering wheel, her chin jutting just above it, sweeping round from Washington Square.
Max picked up the practice keyboard from the street and brought it up
to him on the curb opposite, where he stood quivering. —What happened?
he asked. —That moving Christmas music?
—Well it isn't . . . they have no right to ... Stanley tried to speak, out of breath, accepting the cardboard keyboard like a delicate instrument.
—What do you want on Sixth Avenue, The Messiah?
—They have no right to ... cheapen . . .
—Ask them to play, Yes We Have No Bananas, Max said, smiling. —That's from The Messiah, and it's more their line.
—What do you mean? Stanley was trying to wipe the tire marks from the length of the white keys.
—I mean Yes We Have No Bananas was lifted right out of Handel's Messiah.
But although Gaddis shared this indignation, he also knew that man using technology to spare himself from mastering skills was not a modern degeneration. Later in the novel the shocked Stanley is introduced to the player piano’s ancestor, the “arca musarithmica”, devised by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680): “—What is that? —Don't you remember it, dear boy? The seventeenth-century machine he showed you, that composes music automatically. Alas”. Gaddis recognized that man has always used technology to extend his domain over everything, including art. Although like a vintage modernist he bemoaned philistine decadence, he had the historical perspective to indict the human condition itself.
I’ve barely mentioned the humor. Gaddis rightly spoke of his “immense frustration” at unconscionable pseuds like me who don’t “permit themselves, despite its so-called ‘erudition’, to simply enjoy it.” Since then fans feel obliged to mention it; I didn’t go into it because I think the quotes so far have shown that this is not a sour, asperous slab of volcanic rock. There’s slapstick comedy, running gags, witty repartee, comedy of errors. Any scene with Mr. Pivner or Sinisterra is bound to draw a smile or a chuckle. However, for me the humor comes less from situation than from the same accretive techniques. In Gaddis’ bleak view humans are comical because they can’t help behaving like mindless automata spewing the same inane lines and performing the same phony gestures. And with that it’s time to address the unavoidable theme of authenticity.